It’s fun to arrive on Long Island, but getting there is another story. Even though you can see it from Connecticut’s coast, to make it to The Island, especially on a summer weekend, you must brave a trial-by-traffic, enduring delays on highways like I-95 and the Long Island Expressway. Whichever route you take, your patience, your relationship with your family and, most importantly, the strength of your vehicle’s AC is tested. And somewhere shortly after you cross the Whitestone Bridge, the trip devolves into something that is part Festivus-style “airing of grievances” and part re-enactment of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
Or at least that’s the way visits to relatives on Long Island have historically gone in my family. However, of late the trip itself has become something altogether unexpected: fun. That’s because we’ve ditched the car, with its accompanying traffic jams, for an infinitely more enjoyable mode of transportation: the ferry.
The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Co.
1 Ferry Access Road, Bridgeport
Summer schedule: 6:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., leaving every hour on the half-hour
Ride duration: 1 hour, 15 minutes
The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Co. carries cars, bicycles and passengers between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson on Long Island’s North Shore, with regularly scheduled ferries on weekdays and weekends, and increased frequency in the summer. Like its counterpart, The Cross Sound Ferry — offering service between New London and Orient Point, New York — the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry provides an idyllic way to cross Long Island Sound. Not only does taking the ferry allow you to avoid traffic delays, it is a quintessentially summer-in-Connecticut attraction in its own right. It gets those of us without a boat out on the Sound, where we can soak up the majestic body of water in all its sun-bathed glory, and it brings the chic Long Island town of Port Jefferson within easy reach. On top of that, there is lots to do near the Bridgeport terminal either before or after your journey.
The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Co. was founded in 1883 by Bridgeport resident, former mayor of the city and one of history’s most colorful figures: P.T. Barnum. The famous showman was inspired by his friend, Captain Charles E. Tooker, a sailor who lived across the Sound in Port Jefferson. Tooker and his brother-in-law owned a controlling interest in the corporation, but there were 27 shareholders, including Barnum, who was elected the corporation’s first president. The service was offered primarily to link the agriculture of Long Island with the industry of New England. Today, more than 130 years later, the ferry service has officially outlived Barnum’s more famous circus business.
Launching from Bridgeport’s Water Street Dock, the ferry ride lasts about an hour and 15 minutes, but on nice days, you hardly notice the passage of time. At the start of the voyage, if you glance across the water at Bass Pro Shops’ Outdoor World, you’ll notice that from this angle the “B” in the word “Bass” written on the roof of the superstore is blocked, giving the name a whole new meaning.
There are three vessels in the company’s fleet, each featuring a galley offering hamburgers, hot dogs, pretzels and other ballpark-esque snacks. There is also a lounge at the bow (front) of the vessel, with a full bar with draft beer, wine and an old-school Florida happy hour vibe replete with a jukebox and satellite TVs for sports. During some summer weekends, an outdoor bar is offered on the main passenger level toward the stern, or back, of the vessel. Once describing the voyage as “two cocktails long,” I have spent a good deal of time wasting away in these floating Margaritavilles, but as fun as the lounge is, the star of each vessel is the top deck. Here, the open sea and summer breeze can be experienced in all their indescribable glory. The blue waters of the Sound sparkle like diamonds in the daytime, and at night the stars are reflected in the water, broken only by the green and red lights of other vessels glimpsed in the distance, like something out of Hemingway.
After arriving in Port Jefferson, beer lovers will want to make a beeline for the Port Jeff Brewing Co. (22 Mill Creek Road, 877-475-2739, portjeffbrewing.com). Within easy walking distance of the ferry, this brewery has a cozy, inviting taproom where guests can sample a variety of great brews. A favorite is the nautically named Party Boat IPA. Wine drinkers should check out the downtown wine shop of Pindar Vineyards (117 Main St.), a Long Island-based wine producer.
Afterward you can walk to The Pie of Port Jefferson (216 Main St., 631-331-4646, thepieofportjeff.com), which offers solid thin-crust, coal-fired pizza in a family-friendly setting that has, of late, served as the site of several extended reunions for my clan. Other dining options include Slurp Ramen (109 W. Broadway, 631-509-1166, slurpusa.com) and C’est Cheese (pronounced “say cheese”), a restaurant built around artisanal cheese, with sandwiches, salads and cheese pairings offered alongside craft beer and wine (216B Main St., 631-403-4944, cestcheesepj.com).
A village in the town of Brookhaven, Port Jefferson offers dozens of shops, ranging from antique shops to high-end apparel boutiques. Harborfront Park is home to Bayles Boat Shop (631-474-4725, lisec.org), where visitors can learn about historic boat building.
Beyond any particular place, it’s always fun to people-watch and notice the subtle differences in culture and not-so-subtle differences in accents between Long Islanders and us Connecticut folk.
When your time in Port Jefferson is over and you’re back in Bridgeport, you can cap the day with a trip to Brewport Brewing Co., a large brewpub in a former factory featuring New Haven-style pizza. Brewport is only a 3- to 4-minute drive from the Bridgeport ferry terminal. Three miles away from the ferry is the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport, home to an assortment of great dining and drinking destinations, including Source Coffeehouse (2889 Fairfield Ave., 203-522-5662, sourcecoffeehouse.com), the barbecue joint Walrus + Carpenter (2895 Fairfield Ave., 203-333-2733, walruscarpenterct.com) and Vietnamese pho hot spot Nom-eez (2992 Fairfield Ave., 203-923-8686, nom-eez.com).
Depending on where you go on Long Island, and where you’re coming from in Connecticut, a ferry trip may add some time to your overall commute, but it’s a tangible reminder of the old saying: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.